That's the story of a road to perdition. Roscoe Tanner lived his own way, lost in his way. He won a Slam, but less than his serve, then the quickest in tennis history, suggested. Then, he had five children from four different women, lost millions of dollars and his freedom.
The most celebrated tennis star who ever became a con played his best match at Wimbledon in 1979. And he lost. Don Olmeyer was starting to revive NBC. As the executive producer, he launched Breakfast at Wimbledon and decided to offer, for the first time in the United States, the live broadcast of the Championships final.
He and everybody else dreamt to see Bjorn Borg against John McEnroe, who lost to Tim Gullikson on the court 2, whose fame as the Graveyard of Champions was growing, in the round 16. “When I got there, I used to say, there was the smell of death,” Ohlmeyer told the Archive of American Television in 2004.
That did not last long. Borg had to face Roscoe Tanner, the winner of the first of two Australian Open played in 1977. NBC had to fill five hours of contents and live broadcast but Tanner, labeled Rocket for his lightning serve, was expected to lose at a comparable speed.
Ohlmeyer asked to delay the beginning of the final for 5 minutes: advertising remains the core of every television business. But Wimbledon has a severe routine that money just can't buy. So, with his manager, the influential Donald Dell, Ohlmeyer persuaded Tanner to hid in a toilet before going on court.
His patented left-handed serve helped the NBC, anyway. Tanner developed a peculiar move in which he smacks the ball at the top of his toss rather than waiting for the ball to drop slightly. 'In junior tennis, I could hit harder than anybody my age,'' Tanner once said.
''But in the pros, if you just try to serve hard, they will return it to you. And if you reach back for extra speed, you get in trouble. It's like a golfer. Or a baseball pitcher who tries to muscle the ball a little faster.
It just comes in straight.'' In fact, he started playing baseball when he was a short and fat guy in Chattanooga. His parents Leonard and Anne put Roscoe into his first tennis lesson the summer after first grade.
Leonard was a lawyer and had played tennis at the University of Chattanooga and he bought his son a 1965 Pontiac Tempest for his victory at the 16 National Indoors in Dallas. Tanner added a few touches of humor to the final.
He escorted a long shot waving beyond the line, as a golfer and twice he changed his sweat‐drenched shirt. The American struggled through two deuces and a. break point to hold in the 11th game to bring the first set to a sudden death.
At 4-4 Borg struck out in trying to hit an overhead volley. "Roscoe's greatness was that he saw the glass overflowing -- never half full," said Dick Gould, his coach at Stanford University, in a detailed ESPN profile. "He just couldn't understand that other athletes might be his equal.
It was pure confidence”. In his 2005 autobiography, "Double Fault: My Rise and Fall and My Road Back," Tanner admits he began to cheat on his fiancée, Nancy, later to be his first wife, whom he had met at Stanford, in 1973.
His moral lapses turned into criminal acts. He was playing in a senior event in Naples, Fla., in 1997, when he was arrested for the first time. New Jersey authorities charged him with nonpayment of child support to Connie Romano, an escort he had met at the Waldorf Hotel in New York.
After a DNA confirmed Tanner was the father of Omega Anne Romano, he agreed to the settlement promising to finance it with his $1 million cut from the proposed Roscoe Tanner Tennis Club in San Fernando Valley. But it did never happen.
Tanner never repaid various investors and bought a $39,000 Wellcraft from Florida yacht salesman Gene Gammon. His personal check bounced, Gammon never saw the boat again and Tanner ended in a German prison in 2003. Once out on probation, he was arrested again in Florida.
In 2008, he was also accused of writing a $72,263.43 check to a Knoxville Toyota dealership for two Toyota Highlanders and refusing to return the vehicles when the check bounced. When one of the cars was found, he agreed to a 5,000 dollars fine.
Bad cashiers brought him again in front of a judge in 2012. “I went broke, but I was still trying to put up a front as a successful guy, and went deeper into the hole. I was living desperately”. He was playing desperately against Borg in that Wimbledon final.
Borg took the second set in 20 minutes. Tanner resumed command in the third with an early break. He struggled to hold in a 14-points seven game and gained a two-sets-to-one lead with a service winner. Borg did not lose a set in winning his first title 1976, six sets in 1977, three in 1978 and six again in 1979.
Borg waited, as the manager of the New York Mets said to the New York Times during the final. “Borg was like a surgeon. He knew what he had to do, and he refused to panic or even change his game plan. He waited. Don't deviate, stick to your best, always be yourself”.
Consistent in spite of suffering 15 aces, Borg showed again why a chocolate bar made in Denmark, selling for 7 pence in the South Fields subway station in Wimbledon at the time, was entitled to the Teen Angel: it was guaranteed not to melt even under the most severe conditions.
Borg forced the final to a decider. "In the fourth and fifth sets I win all the big points, every single one," he said. "I don't know. In this tournament, I am always winning those points. It is very strange." Tanner's big chance, he remembered in an interview with Bud Collins for the Boston Globe in 2004, “'My big chance came in the fifth.
I had two break points, 15-40 [at 4-3], and I hit a forehand passer down the line barely wide. Then I missed a volley. I may have played as well beating Guillermo Vilas for the Australian title, but never better than this”.
His best was not enough. Tanner won 15 singles titles between 1974 and 1981 but would play only another Grand Slam semifinal, at the 1979 Us Open. In a memorable quarterfinal, under the lights, he avenged that defeat and, firing serve like a cannon, defeated Borg 6‐2, 4‐6, 6‐2, 7‐6 after serving for the match at 5-3 in the fourth.
Then, at 30-40, he uncorked too much firepower to save a break point at 30-40: after his next serve, the net cord came apart. “When the net broke, it probably helped me more because it was getting breezy,” Tanner said afterward. “I was thinking two aces”. Tanner missed two match points, Borg delivered a couple of forehand winners to break back but the American won 7-2 the ultimate tie break.
“I gained my confidence at Wimbledon,” Tanner said. “That five‐set match made me realize I could play in that category. It helped me to know I could play Borg even. It gave me inner confidence.
I knew I could do it”. Tanner felt another kind of inner confidence during his 17th day in a German jail. On tv, a reverend made a reference to Paul's letter to Philippians: “Don't be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to the Lord”. Such a jailhouse conversion, Tanner admitted in his autobiography co-written by Mike Yorkey, Double Fault, could sound too convenient to casual readers.
“When you're behind bars, when all your freedoms have been stripped away, and when you're suffering deprivation, your eyes are opened” he wrote on the last page. “I did things Roscoe's way for more than 50 years.
Now I'm going to do things God's way." .